As many of you know, because of my deep affection for Junho, I’ve been on a mission to check out his various projects.
I’d been meaning to watch this movie and write it a review (this was my third attempt – more on that in a bit), so what better time to do that, than the weekend that Junho wins Best Actor, at the Baeksang Awards?? Ahhh!!! 🤩
For the record, I’m so, SO happy for him, and so proud of him, and having him on my screen for an hour and 50 minutes this weekend, felt like a perfect way to celebrate his (well-deserved) win. 😍
Psst: Links to watch are at the end of the review! ❤️
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
Heo Sek (Junho), a young man who grew up in a gibang (courtesan house), decides to become the first male gisaeng of Joseon, in order to help the gibang out of debt.
Along the way, he meets and falls for a beautiful young woman by the name of Hae Won (Jung So Min).
MANAGING EXPECTATIONS / THE VIEWING LENS
Here are a few things that I think would be helpful to keep in mind, to maximize your enjoyment of your watch:
1. You need to be in the right mood for this one.
It actually took me several tries, to get into this movie.
The first couple of times, I just wasn’t feeling it, and I do think it had to do with my mood, as well as my struggle to connect with Show’s sense of humor, which I’ll talk about next.
2. Show’s sense of humor leans on the rather ironic side of things.
Show is meant to be funny a good chunk of the time, yes, but its sense of humor can be a bit hard to tune in to, because it’s not the typical type of broad k-humor that most shows utilize.
Instead, Show’s brand of funny is more on the dry and ironic side of things, designed to make you chuckle, rather than howl with laughter.
I do think getting into the right frame of mind for this, would be really helpful.
3. Show’s tone turns bittersweet in its final stretch.
Yes, this is slightly spoilery, but I do think it’s better to be prepared, so that you can fully enjoy what Show wants to serve up, instead of spending the time wondering where the funny went.
4. Junho’s starting mane of glory.. isn’t his best look.
This is completely frivolous, of course. But I just thought it would be helpful to let you know that the mane of glory they give Junho in the beginning of the show is.. not great, in my estimation.
The good news is, the much better looking topknot takes the place of the mane of glory, for most of the movie.
STUFF I LIKED
Junho, Junho, Junho.
I mean, my affection for Junho is the whole reason I decided to watch this movie in the first place, so the fact that he’s the main thing I enjoyed in this show, shouldn’t come as a surprise, yes?
It was interesting to see him tackle a role like Heo Sek, who is more of a happy-go-lucky sort of character than a serious one – at least for a good chunk of our story.
Because I’ve mostly seen Junho in roles that aren’t designed to be funny, like in The Red Sleeve, Just Between Lovers and Confession, this felt kind of new and fresh, particularly when paired with Show’s ironic sense of humor.
I have to admit though, that my favorite bits of Junho’s performance in this movie, has nothing to do with the funny.
Instead, I was very taken by the scenes of Junho dancing as Heo Sek, when Heo Sek is entertaining his lady guests.
His movements are so graceful, and the scenes are filmed with such artistic flourish, that it was beautiful in an almost surreal sort of way. I basically could have watched him dance like this, for the entire duration of the movie. 🤩
Additionally, while I wasn’t super hot on the darker turn that our story takes in its final stretch, I did actually appreciate the opportunity for Junho to showcase more of his acting range, in that angsty final stretch.
Jung So Min as Hae Won
Well, to be precise, I actually found Hae Won a bit underdeveloped as a character, but I thought Jung So Min did well, with what she was given.
She made Hae Won very gentle and sweet, with just enough of her own opinions to make her at least a little bit interesting.
Plus, it was rather fun to see Heo Sek’s burgeoning feelings for Hae Won, and watch him try to act cool and get her attention.
Ye Jin Won as Aunt
Ye Ji Won is always excellent to have on my screen, so even though Aunt doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, I still count Aunt as a plus point of my watch.
Ye Ji Won looks fantastic dressed as an elegant gisaeng, and Aunt’s random romantic connection with Uke Gap (Choi Gwi Hwa) is rather entertaining as well.
Show is thought-provoking
Through most of its run, Show’s theme of the effect of the class divide, discrimination and prejudice, on people, as they try to live their lives, percolates almost like it’s a secondary theme – until the final stretch, where things come to a head.
Even though the final stretch feels like a somewhat sudden turn into Angstville, on hindsight, I do think that it’s organic to our story, and I do feel that, as a whole, our story proves to be quite thought-provoking.
I’ll talk more about that in my next section.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
It’s all (ironic) fun and games until Show’s last half hour, where reality suddenly hits, and everything basically starts going south, for Heo Sek.
On hindsight, I realize that Show’s actually making a statement about class, and discrimination, and how insurmountable those social barriers are, for those who are deemed less than, by the rest of society.
The whole reason Sook Jung (Shin Eun Soo) chooses to commit suicide like that, is because she feels stuck, with her background.
She’d agreed to be sold to be someone’s wife, in hopes that that would save her from a life of serving multiple customers, and yet, that so-called husband had gone off and married someone else instead.
With no other recourse available to her – not even that of the Virtuous Woman Hall, because she isn’t a legitimate wife – she chooses to end her life.
That deeply affects Heo Sek, at basically the exact time that he realizes that his own gisaeng background will definitely stand in the way of any future that he might have with Hae Won, even though she says that these types of things don’t matter.
It’s so sobering to see Heo Sek set fire to the Virtuous Woman Hall, with the intention to also set fire to himself, for not seeing the true depth of the pain that these women, including Sook Jung, endured.
At the same time, though, I have to admit that I’m just reveling in watching Junho emote his way through such meaty scenes, with such depth and such nuance. For this reason (and not for the angst itself), I do kinda love it.
The whole thing, of those noblemen gathering to discuss Heo Sek’s transgressions, again reinforces the theme of discrimination, and how it limits and suffocates, and pretty much kills, those against whom that discrimination is brought against.
It’s rather sad to see that Hae Won marries Yu Sang (Gong Myung) even though she really doesn’t want to, and Heo Sek gets rescued out of prison – but bids goodbye to the only family he knows, because he believes that that’s the only way to keep them safe.
Show isn’t clear on what happens in the many years that pass between these events and the present, but those final few scenes really do pack a punch, for the little screen time that they’re given.
We realize that Hae Won and Heo Sek never forgot each other, and somehow, Heo Sek knew that the servant girl Su Yang (Jo Yi Hyun) had been sent by Hae Won, because the portrait that he creates, is the portrait of Hae Won that he’d once promised to paint for her.
And, he indirectly tells Hae Won that he loves her, by explaining to Su Yang, that “Phom Rak Khun,” which he’d once told Hae Won means “beautiful,” really means, “I love you.”
Guh. So he’d been telling Hae Won he loved her, without telling her that he loved her? How is that so heartachey and sweet, at the same time? 🥺😭
It’s so moving, that they still care for each other so deeply, after all these years, and it’s also so heart-rending, to know that it had been discrimination and prejudice, that had prevented them from sharing their lives like they’d wanted to.
As we close out our story, I’m touched to hear Heo Sek tell Su Yang in voiceover, that he doesn’t need a physical keepsake of Hae Won, because his five senses remember their every moment together.
And then we see all his paintings, that have immortalized not only the moments that they did share, but the ones that he’d wanted to share with her, one day, like riding an elephant in Thailand.
Guh. It’s such sweet heartache to think that he’d lived the future he’d wanted with her, via his paintings, and will continue to do so, even as they look at each other one last time, from afar. 😭
THE FINAL VERDICT:
A little uneven, but works out to be a thought-provoking, wistfully bittersweet tale.
FINAL GRADE: B+
WHERE TO WATCH:
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